State health officials are warning residents to limit their exposure to mosquitoes after confirming nine cases of West Nile Virus in people — the first registered infections this year — including a handful of severe cases in the Baton Rouge area and southeast Louisiana.
The Louisiana Department of Health announced Tuesday that five people recently contracted Neuroinvasive West Nile Virus, a potentially deadly strain that can cause major brain and spinal cord damage as it worsens.
Health officials registered two of such cases in Washington Parish, as well as one case each in East Baton Rouge, St. Tammany and Livingston parishes.
Two other people reported having flu-like symptoms in East Baton Rouge and Washington parishes. Blood donation drives registered two others who contracted West Nile but didn't report having any symptoms.
“It’s a very serious illness,” said Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer with the state Department of Health, adding that no deaths have been recorded so far this year.
Healthy people who contract West Nile can often fight it off with little or no medical treatment, and some don’t experience symptoms. But young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are vulnerable to serious complications that can be fatal or cause long-term disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Local mosquito control offices have noted a slow start to the season for the virus, which typically sees most human cases in late August before infections start to decrease.
By this time last year, the health department recorded 53 West Nile cases in people statewide, including 31 serious cases that resulted in four deaths. The reasons for the disparity between last year and this can be attributed to a number of factors, such as bird migration and a cooler and longer winter.
Mosquito control offices in East and West Baton Rouge recently began spraying for mosquitoes and their larvae after detecting the virus in mosquito populations during weekly surveillance screenings.
Kanter said his office expects to see more mosquito-borne infections in the coming weeks despite the slow start.
State and local health officials urged people to take steps to avoid exposure, such as wearing bug repellent, long sleeves and long pants, as well as avoiding the outdoors during dusk and dawn when mosquitoes bite the most.
Kanter said people can also take precautions by emptying any standing water on their properties because mosquitoes seek it out for breeding. Even a bottle cap filled with water can draw mosquitoes, he said.